Mantling the Challenges of Writing Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
Lead writer Darby McDevitt shares some insight about bearing the narrative standard for one of gaming's biggest story-driven franchises.
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There are few franchises in the video game world with the narrative ambition of Assassin's Creed. Steeped in history and replete with intriguing characters, these games set a high bar for the role of writing in video games. But what does it take to create a video game story on such a grand scale? After all, writing a great story is tough enough when you're writing for a noninteractive reader or viewer; what changes when you want your audience to be an active participant in your work? We talked to Darby McDevitt, the lead writer on numerous Assassin's Creed games (most recently, Revelations), about how one goes about writing for a game as formidable as Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.
A Very Good Place to Start
As you might imagine, given the historical nature of the AC series, it all starts with research. McDevitt confessed he had no special interest in pirates, mentioning only the 1950 Disney movie adaptation of Treasure Island when describing his personal experience with the oft-romanticized privateers. This left him with few preconceptions to set aside before diving into books on the subject. "The first book on piracy [in history] is called The General History of Pyrates, published in 1724, which was only six years after Blackbeard died, and it's the central source of all these golden age pirates. It was a best-seller at the time, and it's written in a very archaic, early-18th-century style." Though the dry prose made it a bit tough to read, McDevitt admits, it provided a solid historical foundation, as well as an interesting typographic detail: The book followed the German style of capitalizing all nouns, a flourish Ubisoft will be adding to the subtitles of ACIV.
Though Pyrates was useful, the most influential book the team read was The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard. Published just five years ago, this tome provided the solution to one of the critical problems facing McDevitt and his team. How do they justify the fact that protagonist Edward Kenway seems to know every big-name pirate of the era? "We didn't want you to feel like Forrest Gump where you're like, 'Oh, I'm just hopping around, hanging out with all the famous pirates!' How is it that Edward has their phone numbers?"
"We didn't want you to feel like Forrest Gump where you're like, 'Oh, I'm just hopping around, hanging out with all the famous pirates!'"
As it turns out, there was a place where these famous pirates hung out from about 1714 to 1718: Nassau, a city on a small island in the Bahamas, due east of the southern tip of Florida. "They wanted to make it into a kind of quasi-democratic republic, their own little country," McDevitt said. The Nassau that Republic describes was essentially a hub world for pirates like Blackbeard, "Calico Jack" Rackham, and Charles Vane, making it the perfect place for Kenway to meet them all. Just like that, the problem of inserting a fictional character into this particular historical context got a whole lot easier. Republic was such a boon to the writing team that they even contracted Woodard to join them on the development team.
It's Kind of Like a Movie
There are certain elements of writing that are universal, no matter what medium you work in. A compelling character is a compelling character, and the building blocks McDevitt cited apply across the board. "I try to come up with their backgrounds, [and make sure] all characters have something they want at the time. There's good advice I heard a long time ago that all dialogue sequences should be a competition between characters. Everyone always wants something. If you think about dialogue in those terms, then you can always write really interesting situations. If you know your characters well and if you know what they want in life and in that moment, then you can bring them to life pretty well."
This approach to dialogue is echoed across books and films, and in fact, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut advised aspiring writers that "every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water." But while writers may draw on the same basic principles, their audiences come to expect different things in different media. Critical and public reception of video game writing can vary wildly, and McDevitt observed that there often seems to be disagreement about what actually constitutes "good writing."
"Is it a good plot that has lots of cool twists and turns like, say, a movie like The Usual Suspects? Is good writing really beautiful writing, like a James Joyce or Herman Melville novel? Is good writing really snappy dialogue, like an Elmore Leonard or Raymond Chandler book or Quentin Tarantino movie?"
The term "writing," then, becomes a broad umbrella under which many different elements fall, some of which may not even be fully in the writer's control. It's not unheard of for a development team to lay out the skeleton plot without even consulting a writer and then hire one on to flesh the story out once development is under way. For Assassin's Creed IV, McDevitt has a substantial degree of control from the get-go, so what does he prioritize in his writing?
"Because I have a real deep interest in a lot of modernist literature and Irish literature, I want some beautiful writing. I want really rich, robust characters with amazing voices. That's what I try to bring to it. I also want to try to bring other things. But I might try to steer away from the easy, snappy one-liners if I can get in much deeper characters."
And as anyone who has played Assassin's Creed: Revelations can attest, McDevitt has had some success in this endeavor. Returning characters Ezio, Desmond, and Altair, as well as newcomer Sophia, were intriguing, likable, and engrossing presences that propelled Revelations' story to its startling conclusion, and the cutscenes featuring these characters lived up to the series' standard of delivering high-quality cinematic experiences.
It's Not Like a Movie at All
Yet for all the similarities between films and games, there are some serious differences to contend with as part of the creative process. Even the most cinematic of gaming moments must remain firmly rooted in the medium. "We treat a lot of [our writing] like cinema, no different, except that our philosophy, especially my philosophy for this game, is that I have to end a lot of these scenes with a clear gameplay objective. It has to be like, 'let's steal that ship' or 'let's do this physical thing that the player can now say I know how to accomplish that through the gameplay mechanics.'"
"What's easy in cinema is sometimes the complete opposite of what's easy in a video game."
From the player's perspective, this seems like a no-brainer. If the cutscene offers some new discovery or otherwise furthers the plot, the player expects that new information to translate into a new mission objective. This means the scene must contain a plot point, and any character development must be structured around this node in the story web, leaving little chance for the kind of idle, yet revealing, scene that books and movies often use to flesh out interpersonal relationships and character motives. This kind of consideration requires that the writer be ever mindful of his or her medium, something McDevitt reinforced later in the conversation.
"What's easy in cinema is sometimes the complete opposite of what's easy in a video game. So, for instance, if I said I wanted a shot of 15 people sitting around being drunk, that seems so easy to shoot in the cinema: you just get 15 guys; they all act drunk; done. In a video game, if all those were unique characters, it would be impossible because you'd run out of memory. You couldn't display 15 unique characters all on the screen at once."
And if you could, the effort that goes into animating them all to be convincing drunks far outstrips the effort required to get a bunch of people to act inebriated. Even a seasoned scriptwriter like McDevitt still runs up against unexpected limitations.
"I'm always bewildered when I'm writing a script and I show it to the cinematics team and I go, 'It's just a guy. He starts crying, and a single tear rolls down his cheek.' And they're like, 'Darby, that's gonna take eight weeks to make! We can't make single tears!' You always have to be careful what you ask for. That's why we have this process of script reviews. They go over it with a fine-tooth comb."
This kind of collaboration is absolutely crucial to the progress of development, and it's something McDevitt and his writing team go through every day, since they are "constantly balancing gameplay needs and story needs." This imperative goes far beyond simply making cutscenes end with a clear objective; it governs every gameplay section as the writers and mission designers ("the second-in-command of story") work together to determine how the game will play out.
"It's like Jackie Chan writing a movie with his fight choreographers, you know?"
"I'll say, 'This mission starts here and has to end up with this guy dead.' Then I work really closely with them to find out what gameplay happens in the middle so that the player feels like he's playing through a story. We wrangle all those gameplay mechanics, and we say, 'What can we do? We can sail, we can shoot, we can climb, we can jump, we can tail, we can chase…' You come up with all those verbs, and you string them together into cool combinations so hopefully you're telling the story at the same time as you're doing cool gameplay."
Of course, even the best working relationships have miscommunications from time to time, and even after 13 years in the industry, McDevitt still encounters disconnects. He gave an example of a gameplay scenario in which the designer might take a building that was going to be underwater and set it on fire instead. "In their minds, they're like, 'It's better gameplay,' and they're probably right, but a lot of times, you're like, 'How does that actually change the narrative?'"
"It's almost as if you were writing a movie, but you were writing it with the fight choreographers. It's like Jackie Chan writing a movie with his fight choreographers, you know? That would be a super-fun movie."